Real estate, like reality television, has a highly voyeuristic aspect to it. While some portion of us are concerned with keeping up with the Joneses, a vastly greater number just crave to know whether the Joneses have granite counters, or whether Mr. Jones is (as rumor suggests) a hoarder.
This voyeurism contains elements of schadenfreude, that snarky satisfaction of knowing that your fellow citizen is worse off than you believed — ideally, at least as bad off as you.
This is the open house-snooping, medicine cabinet-exploration-induced comfort we often take when we stop comparing the interiors of our own lives (and homes) with the dressed-up exteriors of our friends — the realization that they live like we do.
On the flip side, real estate voyeurism also contains elements of fantasy. This is why luxury home sites get so much traffic, why TV shows like "Cribs" are so heavily viewed. Viewers like to escape their own world of leaky faucets and wonky door knobs to imagine how, in the words of author Meghan Daum, "Life would be perfect if i lived in that house."
Now, set both the fantasy and "hateration" of garden variety real estate voyeurism in the context of big hair, bigger personalities, even bigger breast implants and the biggest real estate crisis most Americans have ever known, and what do you have? Bravo’s "Real Housewives" series.
For those who don’t watch the show, here’s a primer. The title "Real Housewives" is a misnomer of a play on the fictional series, "Desperate Housewives," as most of the women featured actually do work, and many are not married.
There are five individual editions, so to speak, of the series, featuring (seemingly) well-off women who could primarily be categorized as socialites, entrepreneurs and a disproportionately high number of real estate agents.
None of the "housewives" works a regular old nine-to-five, and the editions are set in Orange County, Atlanta, New York, New Jersey, and the latest addition, Washington, D.C.
Generally speaking, the shows’ subject matter includes covering the social-striving, business-building, family intrigues, and friendship-making and -breaking of these women’s daily lives. It’s everything you hated about high school, with a layer of Botox over a layer of Prada.
You may have never sat down to watch a single episode, but if you spend much time on the Web, you are probably aware that there have been some real housing crises among the "Real Housewives." Their real estate might be extreme, but the real estate drama the players have had mirrors the real-life experiences of the series’ ordinary American audience.
First, short-sale issues. Blonde, 40-something, sometime real estate agent Tamra Barney (of the "Real Housewives of Orange County") was able to successfully offload her home via a short sale, as so many Americans are trying to do.
However, Lisa Wu-Hartwell, a real estate agent and footballer’s wife appearing on the Atlanta show, eventually lost her home to foreclosure after months of working with the bank to get a short sale approved, as so many Americans have also experienced.
Fortunately, Wu-Hartwell had a spare house on hand, but I’d take a guess she was just as frustrated as every other short-sale seller who goes to great lengths to get the sale closed, then watches futilely as the bank sends it to the auction block during negotiations.
Just last week, Alexis Bellino — one of the only married housewives on "Real Housewives of Orange County" — and her husband announced that they had been able to hammer out a loan modification agreement with their lender — their home narrowly avoiding the auction block.
It does seem that Orange County "housewives" have a better than average success rate when it comes to loan modifications; original Orange County housewife (real estate broker/former Playboy bunny) Jeana Keough also was able to get her home loan modified.
Some observers, possibly venting a bit of that real estate schadenfreude, suspect these ladies’ loan mods are a big-time PR stunt of the lenders.
I suspect, though, that these loan mods had a lot more strategy behind them than that. Multimillion-dollar homeowners have more leverage than others when negotiating a loan mod, because they are so often so upside down, rendering the owners more likely to walk away if they don’t get the modification — and rendering the banks less likely to want the homes on their own books and resale rolls.
Additionally, these folks seem to be less emotional and more OK with the prospect of defaulting on their mortgages to put some leverage behind their negotiations with the bank; and as we’ve so often heard from the banks themselves, it apparently works!
The "Real Housewives" renters haven’t even escaped the housing drama. OC’s Lynne Curtin was the subject of an excruciating segment in which her teenage daughters were reportedly served with an eviction notice.
And, down in Atlanta, NeNe Leakes and her husband were reportedly served with an eviction notice, but she explained the situation quite differently than it was characterized in the salacious media headlines. Leakes said the home "was a lease purchase corporate deal with Greg and his company. Things didn’t work out between the two of them so they did what they had to do and he did what he had to do."
Another Atlanta housewife had a divorce-related "issue" that resulted in her having to move out of her home, but that was nothing compared with the "Real Housewives" real estate drama to end all drama: the storied bankruptcy-cum-foreclosure (or not?) of New Jersey housewife Teresa Giudice and her husband, Giuseppe (aka Joe).
The couple has filed for bankruptcy, listing $11 million in debt, and only a few thousand dollars in monthly income, despite Teresa having a bestselling book on the market, according to reports.
What’s unequivocal is that their bankruptcy court documents state that the mortgage lender on their $1.8 million home in Towaco, N.J., has moved to foreclose on their home.
It’s also unequivocal, though, that Teresa insists that their home is not in foreclosure — even as the photos of their stove and kids’ toys were posted on a trustee-arranged auction website — and, like her West Coast colleague Lynne Curtin, states that her husband was keeping the full details of their financial crisis under wraps.
While many mock them as living over-the-top lives of ostentation and social climbing, Bravo’s "Real Housewives" seem to be riding the same real estate rollercoaster (albeit with gilt, sequined, leopard-print trimmings) as much of the rest of America has over the last few years.
I wonder, though: If the wave of frugal, lean living that is washing over middle America ever does infiltrate the ladies of the "Real Housewives," will anyone watch?